Q: My friend worked at a non-union shop. Her boss fired her without any notice and did not give her a reason. Is this illegal?
A. PROBABLY NOT. In Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, employees without a collective bargaining agreement or other contract are called “at-will” employees. At will employment means employment without an agreed end date. At-will employees can be fired for almost any reason or no reason at all. There are exceptions to this rule, such as discrimination based on sex, race, religion, disability, national origin, and age, or certain protections for public employees, but in general, an at-will employee has little to no protection from being fired. In contrast, your union contract ensures that the employer must have proper or just cause to discipline or terminate you, and you have access to the grievance procedure if you think you were disciplined unfairly.
Q: Does my employer have to give me breaks without a collective bargaining agreement?
A: MAYBE. Most union employees enjoy break and lunch periods. For everyone else, however, it depends on state and local laws, as federal law does not require breaks. In Ohio, employers are not required to give any lunch or break periods, except all minors under the age of 18 must be given a 30-minute break after no longer than 5 hours of work. Similarly, Indiana law does not require lunch or breaks, but employers must give employees under 18 one or two breaks totaling 30 minutes for every 6 hours worked. In Kentucky, employers are required to give reasonable periods for lunch, as well as at least a 10 minutes break for every 4 hours worked. Employers in Kentucky must give employees under the age of 18 at least 30 minutes for lunch.
Q: Does my employer have to give me vacation time without a collective bargaining agreement?
A: NO. While most union employees enjoy some paid vacation, nothing in federal or state law mandates an employer to give an employee vacation, paid or unpaid. In fact, the U.S. is one of the only industrialized nations in the world that does not have a mandatory vacation law. In the United Kingdom, for example, employees are entitled to a minimum of 28 days of paid vacation.
Q: My friend has worked at a non-union shop for 5 years. Another employee who has only worked there for 1 year gets better hours, better pay, and was promoted over my friend. Is this illegal?
A: NO. Without a collective bargaining agreement that ensures employment decisions are made based on seniority, the employer is free to promote, give raises, and distribute hours however it wants. (Again, there are some exceptions under federal, state, and local laws; for example, an employer cannot make these decisions based on race or sex.) Most collective bargaining agreements, on the other hand, require that seniority be at least a factor in employment decisions.
Your union contract gives you many of the rights and protections that you might take for granted – rights that many other working people do not have. We should all strive to educate others about the benefits of being in a union.